A scrappy newscast in Kyiv aimed at Russians counters Putin's propaganda machine February Morning, an online TV channel broadcast in Russian, offers its audience a different take on the war in Ukraine. Its founder says his goal is nothing less than the end of the Putin regime.

A scrappy newscast in Kyiv aimed at Russians counters Putin's propaganda machine

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea nine years ago this month, only one member of the Russian Duma voted against it. Today, that former parliamentarian lives in Ukraine's capital, where he works to undermine Putin's propaganda machine. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley recently met with him.



Ilya Ponomarev welcomes me to his office in Kyiv's historic downtown. The trim-bearded 48-year-old was a member of the Russian Duma from the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk for nine years until voting against Putin's takeover of Crimea in 2014. Shortly after, he traveled abroad.

PONOMAREV: I was on a business trip, and they blocked my return back to Russia - announced that I cannot come back.

BEARDSLEY: So the tech developer stayed in the U.S. and made some money before moving to Ukraine in 2016 to invest in the energy sector. That's when he started thinking about a media company to counter Putin's propaganda.

PONOMAREV: In that time, it was, in my mind, called, like, Russian-language Al-Jazeera, headquartered in Ukraine, like, a tool of influence in all of the Russian-speaking world.

BEARDSLEY: He says he couldn't find interested investors. Then the war broke out. He decided to start a channel with his own money. Less than a month after the invasion, February Morning was born. It's broadcast on YouTube.

PONOMAREV: It's still the only TV channel which firstly is targeted to Russians in Russia, not the Russian diaspora but ordinary Russians in Russia.

BEARDSLEY: The channel also has correspondents in 32 Russian regions who work anonymously. Ponomarev's ultimate goal is to help foment an uprising in Russia. He jumps in his car to head to the studio.

So you have an armored vehicle, and you travel with, like - you have a bodyguard.

Even outside of Russia, being a critic of the Kremlin is risky.

PONOMAREV: It's our control room.

BEARDSLEY: February Morning's studio is a busy place. The station also operates a handful of Telegram channels, the messaging app most Russians use to get their news about the war. Larysa Rybalchenko is the network's chief editor.

LARYSA RYBALCHENKO: I'm from Ukraine, from Donbas region. And my city, where I was born - now it's occupied by Russians.

BEARDSLEY: She says, before meeting Ponomarev, she worked at a Ukrainian news channel.

RYBALCHENKO: And I understood that his ideas to oust Putin's regime is very cool. This is special - yeah, special mission for me.



BEARDSLEY: The anchors are Ukrainian and Russian. This one tells viewers, "we're the only Russian-speaking media that brings you the truth from Ukraine." Rybalchenko says puncturing the Kremlin's propaganda is a round-the-clock job.

RYBALCHENKO: Today, Putin have a speech, and he told that economics is rising in Russia, and sanctions do not work.

BEARDSLEY: So February Morning counters with an interview of a Russian economist based in Cyprus. The network just passed 10 million viewers a week. Ponomarev says Putin has been victorious in everything he's done for two decades, but that's changing.

PONOMAREV: Obviously, the propaganda is saying things are fine, you know, but people do see the map. They see that the Russian army is not advancing. They see that, for nine months, they are fighting for a minuscule town of Bakhmut, you know, which they cannot win. The town is totally destroyed, but, you know, the army is still in the same position.

BEARDSLEY: Ponomarev says it's not easy for Russians to acknowledge the truth.

PONOMAREV: For an ordinary guy, psychologically, to understand that he is at fault is very hard, but everybody who has a Russian passport are at fault because it's our president. It's our army. It's our taxes. You know, it's we who invaded Ukraine.

BEARDSLEY: Editor Rybalchenko says the hate mail from viewers who accused them of lying has been demoralizing, and she's thought at times about giving up, but she takes heart from the larger number of comments now coming from the other side.

RYBALCHENKO: Many people write us from Moscow, from Peter, from Volgograd. And they write that, now we are in Russia, but we believe that you are right, and the Ukrainian will win in this war.

BEARDSLEY: Ponomarev says peace will only come with Russia's military defeat and the destruction of Putin's imperialist regime. This war will not end in Ukraine, he believes. It will end in Moscow. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kyiv.

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